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Five Reflections on America in Transition

This article was published on the Huffington Post Blog November 25, 2016 


In my capacity as the CEO of Tanenbaum (an organization that tackles religious conflicts so that difference will be respected), the 2016 election was hard. The identity politics and lingo of hatred were the opposite of the kind of country we want to live in – from the targeting of Muslims, characterizing homeless Syrian refugees as automatic extremists, to the sudden and growing reality of swastikas in the public space, and the economic, social and racial divide within the country.

In the weeks following the election, I’ve had the chance to reflect with the people around me. It’s been a haunting journey with fear, sorrow, hope and a few hard lessons learned. With respect, I share my Five Reflections with you now.

Reflection #1 The feeling that “I’m in real danger” is palpable.

Immediately after the election, I felt a need to reach out to people I care about, just to touch base. I heard from friends who had supported the President-elect, but were upset about the hate rhetoric and worried that it might not recede. Others shared concerns – their responses left me breathless.

From my Sikh doctor friend, who is also a Major in the U.S. Army:

“I feel that the tone [during and after the election] has created animosity and division. This will be yet another crucible that Sikhs, Muslims and other minorities will endure. … The Republican Party needs to show America that it still cares about ideals such as diversity and religious freedom that have made us great. So far their silence has shown a complicit support of hateful rhetoric and has many of us wondering if America is really two very divided nations?”

From my friend, a successful professional woman, and a Muslim:

“I will never, ever, ever forget the night my babies went to sleep crying in fear. the sick feeling in my stomach got even worse with the appointment of Bannon.”

From an African-American Communications expert:

“I’m dumbfounded by the number of people who voted for Trump who didn’t do so because they are themselves racists, xenophobes or misogynists, but because the racism, xenophobia and misogyny that Trump spewed didn’t even register for them. Of course, being blind to it (or turning a blind eye to it) equates to tacit approval of those mindsets and that’s what so shocking and frankly frightening, especially when it comes to my own mixed-race family that I feel now I must be on constant guard to protect.”

From an academic leader who is Catholic:

“I am trying to ‘lead’ as faculty staff and students struggle with how to respond, from offering sanctuary to undocumented students, to forming a ‘resistance movement.’ Sadly, there has also been some ugliness. Sigh.”

From a Christian woman who cares for other people’s children and their homes:

“What will happen to women in America?”

Reflection #2: The fears are grounded in reality.

In addition to the news of protestors, the debates on whether to acknowledge President-elect Trump as our duly elected leader, the Southern Poverty Law Center reported an uptick in hate crimes after the election (based on reports, not all of which could then be verified). This was alarming given the FBI’s 2015 report that hate crimes had escalated, with a 67% increase in anti-Muslim hate crimes from 2014 to 2015. I am terrified by how some people with racist views have gone public and now seem comfortable freely expressing their prejudice. When did anti-Semitism stop being a dirty word?

But I’m also seeing the ugliness up close, within my personal community.

From a colleague:

“My son’s school had mass protests today after these messages were found yesterday: ‘F—k stupid Latino immigrants … F—k N—s … ISIS is calling, Muslims can leave … (Heart) Trump!’ He was leading the charge (yes, I’m proud of him).”

Photographed at a university in New York | 2016

Photographed at a university in New York | 2016

From a Union Employee Campaigning in Virginia:

“My whole life, I never felt anything about race. But when I was in Virginia knocking on doors for the election, the people would slam the doors in my face, shouting N—.”

Reflection #3: Some people are feeling paralyzed – while others are in “doing” mode, to protect an inclusive social fabric.

I personally witnessed responses from people in my community, and noted with surprise that I had moments of challenge with moving forward. I am a true believer in respectful exchanges and the power of listening to understand rather than confront. So I surprised myself when I attended a one-year old’s birthday party and met someone I had not known from the Midwest.

Though I am almost always a friendly type, I found myself uncomfortable – an unusual experience for me – wondering how to talk about the election and whether we would be able to do so. Though I opted to jump in, as per usual, it was not without trepidation. And that is new. For the record, we shared a concern about division in our country, and what we agreed is a surge in the normalization of hatemongering.

Yet, across the country, and certainly in New York, people dedicated to justice and respect for all came together. Tanenbaum was among the supporters of an important community gathering called #IAMAMERICA, spearheaded by Debbie Almontaser and our interfaith community, which believes in all of us.

Several of my friends donated to causes that protected the people and the rights that they feared will be lost. One Jewish woman, a lawyer in a major firm, sent out a November 9th email titled “This is not about politics” and encouraged her colleagues to make contributions to organizations that pursue justice.

# 4: Listening to One Another is Hard —- but Informative!

Even from those closest to me, who share my values about trying to put the Golden Rule into practice, I saw how communicating across the divide is not always easy – particularly about the last election. For me, it is important and it happened in an unexpected way.

From my plumber Tony:

I have the world’s best plumber. And when the bathroom started leaking into the dining room, he showed up and quickly, cleanly and with kindness took care of what could have been a holiday nightmare. We’ve always been friendly, and we got to talking about the election. I listened hard, and one thing was crystal clear. Tony had voted for better business opportunities.

“I learned a long time ago that there are two types of businessmen. The good guys who do a good job, charge a fair rate and have to beg to be paid so they can feed their families. And the guys to tell you like it is, what they’ll do, and get paid. President-elect Trump cares about us. He’ll fight for us.”

Tony’s not a hater, bigot or a person who stereotypes cruelly. He is a reason we must not stereotype President-elect Trump’s supporters.

Reflection #5: Amid hate crimes, top government appointments that stir anxiety among many, and the emergence of neo-Nazism (and the alt-right), there are reasons for hope.

These are days when our President-elect properly condemned bigotry and, then, during a meeting with the New York Times, said he disavowed the alt-right, white supremacy gathering held in Washington (where hate-rhetoric about Jews prevailed and gestures from the Third Reich could be seen). As a master of Twitter, however, we note that he could do so much more – like strongly condemning acts of the religious harassment, racism and prejudice, and violence.

And right after the election, I was struck by insights I would not have expected, but appreciate. I read an op-ed by Glenn Beck, who urged on all of us the importance of listening – to those you fear and disagree with. For me, hearing Mr. Beck speak of overcoming the divide, a man I used to consider only divisive himself, was a reason for hope. Equally striking was Nick Kristof’s insight that Liberals readily condemn the stereotyping of Latinos and Muslims, but have been quick to stereotype Trump voters. Honest reflection is a step on the path forward.

Establishing a just society and putting it into practice is a long-term effort. One that is always characterized by fits and starts. We have just come out of a fraught election. For those concerned with justice that honors our differences, this is a time for vigilance. Many have rational fears from the months of divisive rhetoric, recent hate crimes and the fears of more.

Yet, now is the time to take a risk and reach out to people whose religious, political, social convictions are different, and even opposite, from our own. A good place to start may be with the people closest to you – or your plumber. It is time to hone the elusive skill of listening to learn. And what better time to start than during the holiday season?

Thank you – for making peace possible!

Dear Friends,

Last Monday  was a touchstone in Tanenbaum’s history. Not only was it our 2016 Gala – PEACE MADE POSSIBLE – but we began the journey toward our 25th anniversary, next year. I’m so grateful to all of you who were able to be with us – for what was truly a powerful evening. Thank you!

U.S. Army Major Kamal Kalsi, the first Sikh granted a U.S. Department of Defense religious accommodation in over a generation, moved everyone with his personal story about how hard it was to practice his religion freely in the U.S. Army, our nation’s largest employer. He shared a little of what it was like to be a doctor in Afghanistan. But one thing Kamal didn’t say was that he won the Bronze Star for his heroism. He reminded us all, “We can build walls or we can build bridges.”

Our speakers also talked about the pain and injury resulting from religious bullying, discrimination and hate. And how Tanenbaum provides effective strategies to counter divisive rhetoric and violent conflicts.

This year’s 2016 Media Bridge Builders, Nicholas Kristof, a two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times journalist, and Sheryl WuDunn, also a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, provided insights into the many challenges facing us today. Both showed how even small efforts by each of us can make a huge difference.

Sheryl shared how a small nonprofit helped save children’s lives, while Nick shared how he manages to remain hopeful, despite reporting on the world’s greatest atrocities. Though he witnesses the world’s worst, he also sees the world’s best: acts of compassion and ordinary individuals displaying unexpected feats of bravery. In his own words, “I am a believer in drops in the bucket.”

Nick is right. We can all do something.

With hope for the future,

Joyce S. Dubensky
CEO

Female Defiance and Education in Afghanistan

Rukshana, who the Taliban stoned to death at age 19

Rukshana – the Taliban stoned her to death at age 19

 

On October 25th the Taliban stoned to death Rukshana, a 19-year-old Afghan girl, on the grounds that she had committed adultery. After Rukshana’s father forced her to become the third wife of a 55-year-old man, she ran away with Mohammad Gul, a 22-year-old young man who she loved. Unmarried, Gul is alive and recovering after receiving 100 lashes as punishment; however, Rukshana was forced into a pit dug in the dirt, deep enough to only leave her head above ground. Encircled by male Taliban officials, rock after rock was thrown at the young girl until she died. In the face of such brutality, viciousness and callous disregard for life, how do we fight back? …what can we do instead? 

Violence from without, violence from within, violence against women…  In his newsletter, Nicholas Kristof suggests how we can fight back against such ruthlessness. Moreover, in a 2010 op-ed, Kristof asks: …what can we do instead? That is, instead of responding to violence with more violence. His question was in response to the escalating violence in Afghanistan during 2010 following Obama’s decision to increase troops in the region, which in Kristof’s words resulted in mostly…more dead Americans and Afghans alike; however, in light of the recent tragedies that have left us shocked, fearful and vengeful, Kristof’s question remains pertinent. In his newsletter, he suggests that we can fight back through the social justice works that are being performed by the women in these dangerous regions.  Explaining in his op-ed that while there’s abundant evidence that…bombs harden hearts, schooling, over time, transforms them. Kristof is referring to the many locally administered Afghan schools that have flourished despite the heavy hand of the Taliban. The voices of these courageous women must be amplified and their work brought to light by those of us who never want to see another viral video of the sadistic murder of a young girl.

Kristof highlights the work of one such woman, Dr. Sakena Yacoobi, Executive Director of the Afghan Institute of Learning (AIL). Dr. Yacoobi was first recognized by Tanenbaum as a Peacemaker in Action in 2002. She is a shining example of how women, in particular, can bypass patriarchal regimes and empower young women through education and professional development, thereby creating social networks for local Afghans to turn to. Kristof’s recognition of Dr. Yacoobi is essential as her growing network of institutes can serve as a model for other women who desire to strengthen the bonds not only between women living under dangerous regimes, but to provide alternative avenues for men who seek lives absent of violence. Dr. Yacoobi eloquently recounts the challenges she has faced during her May 2015 TED Talk. Recalling Taliban members who had asked for the same opportunities as the girls studying at AIL, Dr. Yacoobi poignantly explains, We cannot only train women but forget about the men, because the men are the real people who are giving women the hardest time.

Support of the local, including activists and organizations, is essential to bolstering human development in these regions. Kristof’s op-ed compares the failures of alien educational institutions in Afghanistan versus thriving native institutions, such as AIL. Even in the most dangerous regions, like Taliban controlled areas of Afghanistan, education …is possible, provided the work is done without Westerners and in close consultation with local people, Kristof explainsFor example, his op-ed points out that while government schools regularly get burned down because they are seen as foreign installments, in 2010 Dr. Yacoobi’s AIL supported over 300 schools all of which remain unharmed. 

Establishing gender equality and educational facilities is fundamental for conflict resolution and peacebuilding, although these stories frequently go unheard. Tanenbaum, like Kristof, understands the vital and urgent need to disseminate stories of human development and accomplishment in a sea of violent, inhumane and dark tragedies. And due to our great respect for his ceaseless efforts to place a spotlight on the courageous work of those fostering development in some of the most troubled areas of the world, Tanenbaum will be honoring Nicholas Kristof at our May 2016 Annual Gala, together with his wife Sheryl WuDunn, a Pulitzer Prize winner, best-selling author and business executive who fights for justice. Kristof’s determination to focus on the work of women in the field is absolutely essential for furthering the on-going success of these dedicated activists. Kristof and organizations such as Tanenbaum are serving to rectify this uneven coverage and to highlight models of civic engagement that will inspire others in war torn regions around the world.

Today we are faced with a similar choice; that is to say, of responding to brutality with further dehumanizing violence or embracing those who are experiencing the very same fear. Patient and thoughtful responses are most crucial in times of uncertainty. The stories of Tanenbaum’s Peacemakers in Action and those highlighted by the superb reporting of Nicholas Kristof offer local alternatives to violence.

For more information about the work of Tanenbaum Peacemakers in Action and other unrecognized or under-recognized individuals, please subscribe to Mr. Kristof’s newsletter and Tanenbaum’s email updates.

Ritu Mukherjee
Conflict Resolution | Tanenbaum

 

Who is welcome at the holiday table?

December, a time of year when holidays bring religious diversity issues to the surface in workplaces, is right around the corner.  In an article recently published in INSIGHT Into Diversity magazine, Tanenbaum's CEO, Joyce S. Dubensky, discusses better practices around the “December Dilemma,” and proactive strategies for creating an inclusive workplace environment year round.

Who is Welcome at the Holiday Table? pdf.